This isn’t a story about a plucky underdog rising above their perceived betters. Goliath doesn’t fall this time.
The New York Knicks were a model franchise back in the 90s, long before they decided their 2014-2015 season would end in February after going into the All-Star break with 10 wins and coming out of it absent both the released Amar’e Stoudemire and the injured Carmelo Anthony.
From the 1987-1988 season to the 2000-2001 season, the Knicks never missed the playoffs, and made it to the NBA Finals twice — losing to the Houston Rockets in 1994 and the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. Times were good, but they would have doubtlessly been better if not for Michael Jordan, the NBA’s best player and a man who both recognized the Knicks as a threat and saw it as his duty to swat them down whenever he and the Chicago Bulls got the chance. Jordan said as much when discussing them with friend Ahmad Rashad
“Every game we played, we tried to send a statement. We’re trying to make sure that they don’t gain anything on us. As long a Patrick [Ewing] was going to be there, as long as [Charles] Oakley was going to be there, as long as [John] Starks was going to be there. It’s like fighting your big brother or little brother — you’ve gotta let them know who you are. This is where you belong. I don’t care where you think you think you are, this is where you belong.”
From 1989-1996, the Knicks and Bulls met in the playoffs six times with the Bulls taking five of those hard-fought series. The Heat-Knicks rivalry of the late 90s gets more ink for its collection of flying elbows, trash talk, and hard fouls, but while the Knicks didn’t get as much credit for roughing up the Bulls as much as the Pistons did when Jordan was trying to take their crown in the late 80s, they certainly made an impression.
“Once we started winning and got past Detroit, the Knicks became our biggest rivals. They were trying to get where we were. We were trying to maintain what we were. Every battle was magnified. Patrick [Ewing] was a good friend. Charles Oakley used to be in Chicago. John Starks, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason—all these guys. When Detroit was winning, everybody had adopted the physical type of game. New York became that way, too. You go in the middle, you’re going to get hit. Patrick was a fierce intimidator.” (via Cigar Aficionado)
As fierce as Ewing, Anthony Mason, Xavier McDaniel, and Charles Oakley were, they weren’t able to sufficiently slow the Bulls, who went 19-8 in the playoffs against the Knicks from 1989-1993 and in the 1996 Conference Semifinals with Jordan averaging 33.1 points per game, going for over 40 in seven of the 27 games.
The Knicks one win against the Bulls in the playoffs came in the 1993-1994 season when they made it to the Finals after surpassing a Bulls team that was without Jordan as he tried his hand at minor league baseball during his first retirement. Interestingly, the Knicks’ other Eastern Conference title came in the first year after Jordan’s second retirement, when everyone with a pulse save for Toni Kukoc had left the Bulls following their run of six titles in eight seasons. Though a conference championship is a conference championship, to a degree, even the Knicks’ greatest achievements from that era are affected by Jordan, since the Knicks didn’t beat the best to be the best. Or in this case, the second best.
When Jordan returned to the league in 2001 with the Washington Wizards, he was a 38-year-old forward three seasons removed from the game and the Knicks were headed for a 52-loss season. Despite the lack of playoff drama, however, Jordan still found a way to add a few highlights to his reel against the Knicks, burying a last-second shot to put the them away at the Garden on December 22, 2001 and scoring 39 points in his last game at Madison Square Garden, a place that Jordan called one of his “favorite places” to play in a post-game interview following that clutch basket in 2001.
“Sometimes you just have a favorite place to play. This has always been one of my favorite places.” (via USA Today)
Those are Jordan’s last highlights against the Knicks, but below are a few of the earlier moments from Jordan’s career that made the Knicks-Bulls rivalry so special and utterly frustrating for Knicks fans.